Radio City Rockettes

9:05 pm Feature Stories

Wilkes Barre Times LeaderAugust 12, 2001 Sunday MAIN EDITION


BYLINE: DAWN SHURMAITIS Special to the Times Leader


LENGTH: 1308 words

NEW YORK CITY – It’s the kind of defining moment that lasts a lifetime.

The lights go down in the famed Radio City Music Hall. The orchestra strikes the first note. The audience hushes. And the world’s most famous precision dance troupe enters from stage left – led by Pennsylvania resident Barbara Woronko.

“I thought ‘Thank you, God, for a mother who made me stick to dancing,’ ” Woronko, who is now Barbara Anzalone, recalls of her debut. “That was the moment of all moments. It was magic. I will never forget it as long as I live.”

The year was 1974. Anzalone was 26. This week, she traveled back to New York City and Radio City Music Hall for a Rockettes reunion. The dance troupe celebrated its 75th anniversary with a performance on Sixth Avenue that brought more than 350 former dancers back for another moment of glory. On Wednesday, despite the record-breaking 99-degree heat, the Rockettes strutted their stuff for the adoring crowd of tourists, onlookers, friends and family who lined the street.

“It’s legs, it’s all about legs,” Anzalone says of the intricate routines the Rockettes are known for, always moving in unison as “one dancer,” particularly during the “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” that highlights the famed “Christmas Spectacular.”

To this day, more than 2,000 women – including Anzalone – have danced as Radio City Rockettes. “What I miss the most is the camaraderie. We always chat and catch up,” Anzalone says of the reunions she tries to attend every year, when the Rockettes help start the holiday ticket-selling season. “We all seem to have the same stories.”

Recently, Anzalone contributed a patch to a quilt that will be sewn into the same curtain that has hung at Radio City since 1932, the year the Rockettes debuted in New York. Each available Rockette was asked to contribute. Anzalone sent in a patch with a photo of her family.

This year, Anzalone also attended a pre-performance cocktail party for the Rockettes and Radio City personnel. There, she ran into the white-haired George Le Moine, whose photos of the Rockettes line the Music Hall. Le Moine brought a stack of pictures – and a stream of memories – from his long association with the Rockettes.

“This one had a nasty divorce,” he says, flipping through the pictures he keeps in his wallet. “This one’s mother was a Rockette. That one moved to California and opened up her own law firm. This was the first black Rockette. This one married Liberace’s doctor, which means she ain’t starving. That one is a grandmother – her daughter dances in Las Vegas.”

Anzalone’s own special memories date back 25 years, when she was in her final year in a medical program at Wilkes College. She’d always enjoyed the full support of her mother, Maria Woronko – a strong believer in the discipline of dance – and after dancing all her life, Anzalone decided to just go for it, to audition for the Rockettes. By the time she made the call to New York City, Anzalone was skilled in jazz, ballet and tap – at the time, the Rockettes required proficiency in all three dance disciplines.

Luckily, Anzalone was used to being on stage and in the spotlight, thanks to her winning turn as Miss Pennsylvania for the Miss USA Pageant. A cameo in the ‘60s TV cult hit “Dark Shadows” followed. But still, she failed her first Rockettes audition.

At the time, she didn’t know the Rockettes’ signature step, called the hitch-kick, in which dancers jump on one leg and at the same time kick up the other. All the kicks had to be eye-level, a height the 5-foot-8-inch Anzalone needed to master. So she went home and practiced, gaining special help from Kingston dance instructor Bob Niznick. Night after night, day after day, she’d take long hot baths and stretch her muscles, willing them to become longer and stronger. Step, kick. Stretch. Step, kick. Stretch. Higher and higher each time, until she could do it in her sleep.

“Constantly, every single day,” she says of her practices, which she’d interrupt only for the occasional tuna fish sandwich. “I did it until I was satisfied.”

Back then, Violet Holmes was the Rockettes’ director, the one who conducted the auditions. But the final say belonged to choreographer Peter Genero. Anzalone will never forget her first sight of him, casually meandering through the grand rehearsal hall in overalls. She mistook him for the janitor. Little did she know that he held her fate in his hands.

“I was so nervous I couldn’t stand it,” she says she recalls. “I was thinking about all of the things that could go wrong. But once I began, all that passed. All I could think about was the moment.”

Genero watched Anzalone’s routines – and told Holmes to hire her. The call came in May, when she learned she’d have to move from her hometown, where she’d lived all her life, to New York City. All the dancers lived at the rehearsal club on 53rd Street, a long way from Edwardsville. A house mother named Mrs. Clayton kept everyone in line, advising and sometimes providing the motherly coddling the young women needed.

“We were all-American girls,” she says. “Believe me, all the girls lived up to that. We really looked out for each other.”

Anzalone’s telephone bills soared from calling home every night. But she persisted, soon falling in love with all of New York City and the thrill of being a Rockette. She even loved the little spaghetti joint near Central Park the girls would go to after work each night, always traveling in packs of two and three, for safety and comfort.

“I remember walking with the Rockettes down 53rd Street toward Radio City. The sun was shining, it was so beautiful,” she says.

Although the “stage-door Johnnys” would crowd the exit after every performance, Anzalone concentrated on her new job, reporting for rehearsal each day at 7 a.m. to master the precision dancing for which the Rockettes were famous. The Rockettes performed four shows a day, seven days a week, for four consecutive weeks. Then, they would get a two-week “vacation.”

She joined “the line,” as it’s called, after just one week of rehearsal. “I remember being up all night, going over the routine. I was so afraid I would forget,” she says of the night before her opening, which her mother, Uncle Joe and Aunt Joanie attended.

After less than a year in the bright lights and big city, Anzalone suffered an injury that ended her career as a Rockette. During a step-kick, or maybe it was a double pirouette, she caught her 2-inch heel in part of the revolving stage and landed so hard she saw stars. But always a trouper, she struck a dramatic pose, as if it was all part of the act. The next day, she was so bruised, the other dancers had to help her wrap her ribs. It was obvious she couldn’t keep up the brutal dance regime any longer.

“I’d had a wonderful time,” she says of the dancing and the friendships she made with the 35 other dancers who’d come, like her, from small towns and cities across America. There was Mickey, the Ohio girl with the gorgeous blues voice, and Tex, who hailed, of course, from Texas.

So she moved back home and opened her own dance studio, which became The Northeast Academy of Dancing, which she operates to this day. When her mother died, she turned the family home into the studio. Later, she married the Pittston man she’d first met when she was 4 years old – Dr. Anthony Anzalone. The couple has one son, 18-year-old Anthony. Yes, he took dance lessons at his mother’s studio, to better his coordination for the football field.

In another 25 years, the Rockettes will celebrate their 100th anniversary. In all likelihood, Anzalone will be among them, right there on Sixth Avenue. Step, kick. Smile. Step, kick. Smile. She vows: “I’ll never stop dancing.”

Former Times Leader staff member Dawn Shurmaitis is now a freelance writer in New York City.

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